I’m not one to advise anyone how to spend their Champions League February knock-out phase Week One matchday(s), but I know from experience there are worse ways than at your local public house over a pint, or if you’re in America, your local Sports Bar and Family Restaurant Chain tearing soggy corn chips from a crusted web of solidified cheese in between taking sips from a bottle of Coors Lite. If this is where you’ll be tomorrow, may I suggest a drinking game to pass the time?
At any point a commentator or sports analyst mentions how this week’s match-ups “will go a long way to determining how far the Premiership has come in comparison with Serie A,” have a drink. Any time a commentator or analyst wonders “how the Serie A’s defensive chess-like tactics will square up against the Premiership’s pace, power and passion,” have a drink. Any time someone asks for comment on “who’ll win the mind game between Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson,” have another drink. You probably see where I’m going with this, so feel free to provide your own (just please don’t drive home afterward and be sure to have your eye on the nearest washroom).
I love sports journalists, but I know their mad scramble for copy means they will have to take the direct route of soul-shattering cliche. Most of the stories getting pumped out this week (here is a selection) involve the following logical progession: If a) Serie A is probably not as good as the Premiership but there’s no reliable way of proving it, and b) the Champions League is pitting top Premiership clubs against clubs in Serie A, then c) the outcomes from this week’s matches will reveal something about the respective quality of the leagues. In the midst of all this are the usual suspects: Italian ‘hooliganism’ (look! It’s not us anymore, see?), references to the Calciopoli scandal, fear that the Premier League might not be as good as we all think (and judging by how United are running away with the title at the moment, maybe not), and the juiciest meme of them all: Fergie v. the Special One.
The Champions League is great entertainment, but I’m not sure it’s the best method of determining league superiority. A two-legged knockout stage tournament is an entirely different beast than a week-in, week-out league system based on point accumulation.
In fact, the whole matter of league superiority seems dubious from the start. Yes, Serie A has less money than the Premiership and is less popular internationally (which could have as much to do with the fact English is the lingua franca of the global age than with a preference for ‘quality’) but does that make it a lesser league? The “defensive” Serie A has seen AC Milan in the Champions League final twice in the past four years, scoring a total of five goals in both games. Both times they met perennial EPL’s third or fourth-best Liverpool who regularly underperform in the Premiership against sides like Manchester City, one of the richest teams in England. Spain’s La Liga is persisently called the best league in Europe, but in very recent years have only put up Barcelona as a powerhouse contender in the CL. And Holland’s Eredivie can’t beat any other clubs in Europe but have produced exciting, down-to-the-wire results for the past two years. “Superiority” seems to me as much a matter of taste, culture and preference than of trophies.
As for the annoying Mourinho v. Ferguson debate, sorry to say it won’t be determined by Jedi mindtricks or some sort of Scanners-like head explosion technique (although that would be cool!) but by whichever tactics either employ on the day. Or the weather. Just remember that when you order your ninth lite beer of the afternoon.